O is for Open & Relational

One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.O-OpenRelational

These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:

  • Open addresses the nature of the future.
  • Relational addresses the nature of power.

The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.

There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:

  1. Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to come all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
  2. Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated our outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
  3. Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’

I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller  elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.

Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.

Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.

Here is a bullet point list of themes from a previous post by Tripp Fuller:

  • God’s primary characteristic is love.
  • Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
  • Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  • God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  • Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  • God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  • God created all nondivine things.
  • God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  • Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  • The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  • God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
  • Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

You can listen to HBC episode 107 with Thomas J. Oord for more.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

 

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L is for Liberation (and Logos)

Two concepts that anybody doing theology in the 21st century must know are Liberation and Logos. They play into so much of what we do in the theological endeavor.L-Liberation

Liberation Theology: This term most often refers to a theological movement developed in the late 1960s in Latin America (where it continues to hold prominence). In attempting to unite theology and sociopolitical concerns, liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez emphasize the scriptural theme of liberation, understood as the overcoming of poverty and oppression. Liberation theologies have also found expression among representatives of seemingly marginalized groups in North American society, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 797-800). Kindle Edition.

It might be helpful to understand how I came to liberation theologies. I was writing my Master’s Thesis at an evangelical seminary on ‘Contextual Theology’. I was doing so because I had been raised and ordained in a Missionary denomination. I wanted to encourage and advance the work of those who claimed the ‘missional’ and/or ‘missions’ moniker.
It was in the midst of engagement with Bevans and Schreiter that I stumbled upon a form of contextual theology (an alternative perspective) that stood apart from the enlightenment/colonial models. It was called ‘Liberation’ and it was unlike any of the other models being examined.

Gonzalez adds a couple of important clarifications:

Some liberation theologies center their attention on international economic oppression, while others are particularly concerned with classism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and other foci. Besides acknowledging and claiming their contextuality, … liberation theologies insist on the need to promote and practice justice and love, not only at the personal level, but also in societal practices and structures.

Justo L. González. Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2442-2446). Kindle Edition.

The only thing that I will add as far a Logos theology goes is that one must account for they way in which the word (logos) became flesh. ?This is the case, not just because John 1 is so important in protestant-conservative-evangelical-charismatic circles, but because one must figure out in what way God was present in Christ.

There is much to be said on this issue not just because the Incarnation sets the tone for contextual (liberation) models of ministry but because the entire christian gospel is based on (centered on) the reality that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt (camped-tabernacled) among us.

In more philosophical circles, Logos theology takes on a much broader concern. As early as the 6th century B.C.E. Greek philosophers were addressing the Logos as “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.”
The Gospel of John borrows/appropriates/adopts this term to address the pre-existence of Christ and how that manifested in the person of Jesus. It is important to understand that the gospel writer integrated/adapted Greek philosophy. This move is significant for several reasons:

  1. Proclamations about Jesus were not made in a vacuum.
  2. Some early church writers drew from Hebrew narratives and themes.
  3. Others spliced in philosophical ideas and concepts from non-Jewish sources.
  4. Both in scripture and in church history we see a constant and elaborate mixing/integrating of external philosophies and concepts.

I bring this up because a major objection to Liberation theology is its use/appropriation of secular political theories (like Marxism) and critics will use this to discredit Liberation thought. We need to be careful with that kind of easy dismissal. ?Liberation theology does have its drawbacks and limitations* – but simply having philosophical partnership is not one of them. In fact, there has never been a theological or ‘biblical’ expression that did not have philosophical underpinnings or explicit frameworks.
Theology does not happen in a vacuum. All theology is contextual theology. This is not a problem. The only problem is when certain theologies don’t recognize their contextual nature with time and place and purport to being both universal and timeless.

Liberation theology is not for everyone and it does not happen everywhere. While true that it is thoroughly political and radically ideological at points, it is also highly contextual and local – as all theology should be.

 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

 

* some object to Liberation’s emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed. 

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I is for Infallible, Inerrant, Impassible and Immutable

Note: all relevant ‘I’ words will be placed in italics.I-Inerrant

It is an unfortunate quirk in the English language that leads negatives – or negations – to begin with the letter ‘I’.

The resulting effect is that some of the most problematic and even disturbing words in the theological tool-shed begin with ‘I’.

  • Infallible
  • Inerrant 
  • Impassible
  • Immutable 

These are just a sample, but are the 4 that we will focus on today.

These four ‘I’ words are just a sample of the kinds of words that lay-people can find both intimidating and infuriating about theology. Some have even lost their faith over these ‘I’ words.

Don’t even get me started on irresistible grace and infralapsarian – two concepts that hard-core Calvinists will bring up.

I say this in all seriousness. There is something about ‘I’ words which exhibit the most intense aspect of the difficulties when delving into theology. Many people point to words like these as an example of exactly why they are not interested in theology.

I have named 6 problematic ‘I’ words so far – but I will offer 2 more (inspiration and incarnation) as examples of ‘keeping it simple’ as an antidote to becoming disillusioned.

Let’s deal with the Bible first and then with God.

We live in a unique time of history where those who claim to believe the Bible the most attempt to place two words not found in scripture upon the Bible:

Inerrancy: The idea that Scripture is completely free from error. It is generally agreed by all theologians who use the term that inerrancy at least refers to the trustworthy and authoritative nature of Scripture as God’s Word, which informs humankind of the need for and the way to *salvation. Some theologians, however, affirm that the Bible is also completely accurate in whatever it teaches about other subjects, such as science and history.

This is admittedly a tough line to hold. The more that one learns about Biblical scholarship or historical criticism the tougher it gets. Inerrancy is an outside idea imposed upon the Bible that the Bible itself and thus has a tough time living up to its claim. It does not, however, mean that the Bible is not trustworthy!! This is my point! One can trust the Biblical narrative without having to elevate it to the level of inerrant.

Infallibility: The characteristic of being incapable of failing to accomplish a predetermined purpose. In Protestant theology infallibility is usually associated with Scripture. The Bible will not fail in its ultimate purpose of revealing God and the way of *salvation to humans. In Roman Catholic theology infallibility is also extended to the teaching of the church (“*magisterium” or “*dogma”) under the authority of the pope as the chief teacher and earthly head of the body of Christ.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 726-731). Kindle Edition.

Infallibility is better than inerrancy. Infallible can simply mean that the Bible will accomplish that which it is meant to accomplish. That seems fair enough on the surface.

Here is my contention: Why do we need to assert that it is guaranteed to accomplish the task? Where does that need for certainty come from?
Why isn’t it enough to say that the Bible is ‘inspired’ and leave it at that?

Inspiration: A term used by many theologians to designate the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the human authors of the Bible to record what God desired to have written in the Scriptures. Theories explaining how God “superintended” the process of Scripture formation vary from dictation (the human authors wrote as secretaries, recording word for word what God said) to ecstatic writing (the human authors wrote at the peak of their human creativity). Most *evangelical theories of inspiration maintain that the Holy Spirit divinely guided the writing of Scripture, while at the same time allowing elements of the authors’ culture and historical context to come through, at least in matters of style, grammar and choice of words.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 731-736). Kindle Edition.

2 Timothy 3:16 talks about scripture being ‘god breathed’ . I think that should suffice and that attempts to impose external expectations upon the scriptures are futile (impotent?).  Whenever someone wants to talk about the ‘original’ texts, one only has to ask about them to see this folly.

It’s like calling the Bible ‘the Word of God’. The problem is that the New Testament refers to Jesus as the Word of God. Christians rightly refer to the testimony about Jesus as the scriptures. In this sense, they are words about the Word.
The problem starts when we want to upgrade the concept beyond its capability to sustain that we which we are attempting to assert upon it.
I would love if Christians would simply be satisfied with believing that the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit and not attempt to make a claim on it that it can not sustain.

Now let’s talk about God.

The God that is revealed in Christ is, for the Christian, both informative and formative. It both sets a precedent and provides an interpretive lens.
As with the Bible (above) it is disastrous when we import foreign concepts of God (in this instance from Greek ideals) and impose them upon the revealed nature of Christ seen in the incarnation.

Immutability: The characteristic of not experiencing change or development. Certain understandings of God posit the divine reality as incapable of experiencing change in any way. Some theologians, however, assert that this concept owes more to Greek philosophical influence than to explicit biblical teaching. Many contemporary theologians distinguish between God’s eternally unchanging, faithful character and God’s ability to respond in different ways to changing human beings in their temporal, earthly situation.

Impassibility: The characteristic, usually associated with God, of being unaffected by earthly, temporal circumstances, particularly the experience of suffering and its effects. Many contemporary theologians reject the idea of divine impassibility, suggesting that it reflects Greek philosophical, rather than biblical, concerns. However, the Bible clearly teaches that God cannot be swayed in any way to be unfaithful to what God has promised. Still, it is seemingly impossible to associate pure impassibility with God in light of the fact that Jesus Christ, as the fullest manifestation of God, experienced suffering on the cross.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 704-709). Kindle Edition.

You can see why these concepts are contentious. They are imported from somewhere else and then imposed upon the narrative of Scripture. In my opinion they are incompatible and thus unsustainable.

Our great hope is found in the in-carnate god. We will return to this concept in two days with the letter ‘K’ for kenosis.

I would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, questions and comments.

 

BIG thanks to Jesse Turri for providing the artwork for each letter!

If you are interested you can see the early post about reading the Bible according to Genre or check out the art of Hermeneutics (interoperation).   You may also want to look into the temptation of Fideism.

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F is for Fideism or Why What We Believe Really Matters

Fideism is one of the most alluring, and thus, potentially dangerous developments on the theological landscape in our lifetime.

Fideism: The view that matters of religious and theological truth must be accepted by faith apart from the exercise of reason. In its extreme, fideism suggests that the use of reason is misleading. Less extreme fideists suggest that reason is not so much misleading as it is simply unable to lead to truths about the nature of God and *salvation.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 552-554). Kindle Edition.

Fideism has been around for a long time but it has taken on a new tenacity recently.F-Fideism

The 19th Century was a tough one for ‘reasoned faith’. Those bastions that survived into the 20th Century were not left unaltered. In fact, since WWII the effect of those descended from who Paul Ricoeur dubbed ‘The Master of Suspicion’ – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx … and some add Darwin – has grown and intensified.*

Part of ‘reasoned faith’ is that it had to adjust and modify. It had to account for new data (scientific and sociological) and, more importantly, it had to stop playing by its own rules.

The rules of engagement changed. Faith no longer got a free pass. The ‘church’ was no longer running the uni-versity. Fields like science had grown up since the Copernican revolution was no longer afraid of the church and began to act like the were running the show now.

Modern christianity had to choose whether to

  • Flee
  • Fight
  • or Adjust-Adapt-Evolve

I have written about this as modern christianity’s temptations.

A subtle form of this impulse toward fideism is simply to speak of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisterium”. Science and reason take care of their areas and faith takes care of its area.

Those who take this impulse further retreat into what Wittgenstein would call ‘private language games’. They take on a formal defense of the given-ness of faith say that faith doesn’t have to be reasonable. Those two things are just speaking different languages and that science of reason doesn’t even have the ability to understand what faith is doing. That is why neither can even provide a critique let alone a correction. Religion is thus except from an investigation-integration from outside.

I would argue that what we believe in private has massive implication for how we participate in the public arena.

We can see this battle line in the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the Supreme Court.

Let me give an example from history – courtesy of another ‘F’ word in our pocket dictionary: filioque. A Latin term literally meaning “and the Son,”

The addition of this phrase by the Western (Latin) branch of the church in the in the 6th to the 4th Century creeds – without the permission of the Eastern churches – would eventually lead to the schism of the two groups in the 11th Century.
This schism is notable enough but 500 years later, in what would become colonial missions by western europeans, the issue had real consequences. As both Catholic and Protestant missionaries sailed around the world to convert native populations, the filioque clause would answer a significant question.
Could the Spirit of God be at work ahead of the missionaries arrival? The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The Spirit proceeded not just from the Father (and thus potentially outside of the work of the Son) but ‘from the Son also’. It was believed then that the work of the Spirit followed (proceeded not preceded) the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

There were minority schools (some Jesuits) who disagreed – but they were subsequently reprimanded.

Some may hear about the filioque clause and think “how would we even know who proceeded when? And how exactly are three people ‘one God’ anyway? This is all just speculation and minutia – like angels dancing on the head of the needle!”

Speculation it might be. But both in history and in our present societal unrest what folks believe in private really does impact how that participate in public.

This is why we have to care about fideism. I understand the desire to preserve the past and stake out ones territory for the given-ness of the tradition. It is a way of protecting what is deeply valued and – let’s be honest – in grave danger.

Those who are attracted to fideism look at the evolution of their religion and the disappearance of treasured practices and think “I don’t even recognize this contemporary mutation as the same thing that we inherited from those who came before!”

… and that might be true. But , as I am arguing in the series, we live in a world come of age and The Faith both needs to and is bound to change.
* another way of saying this is to list the fields of psychology, philosophy, sociology, and science.

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TNT: Missions, Matthew, Jesus being nice & Stryper

Tripp and Bo field phone calls from the SpeakPipe about Missions (Russia), the gospel of Matthew, Jesus being at least as nice as God and a theology of Stryper. TNT

We love your calls and thoughts on the SpeakPipe !!!

Tell us what you want to talk about.

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10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101

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Greg & Tripp Chatting

CEM47354539_129436297782Tons of people that are ‘religious’  would be shocked if they just took a religion 101 class.  The divide between the academic study of religion is so huge that the experience of many students in their first religion class is disorientating.  I don’t think this is because religion professors hate religion and want to ruin people of faith’s confidence.  Largely it is evidence of just how poor our religious communities educate their members.  In this episode I am joined by Greg Horton, ex-pastor and undergrad religion professor in Oklahoma to look of  a list of 10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101.  Well we get through half of it in this episode.  Next week we will finish

Greg Horton was one of the inspirations behind starting the podcast.  I have stalked him online for a long time and then we got to have some fun in person on my visit to Oklahoma.  It was turned into this popular episode of the podcast.  Then he came back on the podcast to share 10 Dirty Secrets About Being a Minister.  Way back when he had a podcast called ‘the Parish’ on the wired parish podcast network. Back then he was an emergent Christian and has since left the building. Throughout his journey I have loved following his blog,hearing about his undergrad religion and ethics students, and thinking through some of the serious criticisms he has leveled against the church. Plus he also does some wine reviews.

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Who Loves Us? or What’s Up With Worship Music?

I am a passionate worshiper. I sing loudly and feel the songs deeply. As a former drummer, I also dig rockin’ worship.worship blue

Having said that, my recent travels have given me reason to pause. In three different states – in three different regions of the country – I have had the pleasure of attending three different worship services. It was not lost on me that although they are three different denominational backgrounds, they all sang almost identical worship sets.

Now, the uniformity in contexts that proudly eschew liturgy is fascinating enough – but will have to wait.
What I want to focus on today is that in all  three services the exact same song appeared … and it is a troubling song in the context of public worship.

I know that looking at contemporary worship music is a delicate affair. I have at times comforted those who are worried about worship. I have at other times needed to be reminded of the poetics involved corporate singing.

It is with appropriate caution that I offer a modest critique of this very popular song. I only bring it up because it is so emblematic of a larger issue that needs addressing.

The song is “How He Loves Us”. Here is how the song starts:

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.

 

Right off the bat we have 4 problems:

1) Who is ‘He’? The song never references God at all.  It never introduces a character and then refers to ‘him’ by pronoun the rest of the time. There is no referent for ‘he’. It is odd to introduce a pronoun without an antecedent.

Herein lies the problem: the assumed ‘you’ (or in this case ‘he’) of modern worship music is too comfortable. I don’t mean in a ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ sort of way. I mean in an christendom assumption that everyone in the room means/thinks the same thing.
This presumption of identity is the exact thing that we need to be correcting/ deconstructing with good and meaningful worship!  Instead, we go early and often to therapeutic songs about belonging, identity and longing.

2) Mercy Doesn’t Bend Trees. I get the imagery of the hurricane. It is fine to allude to imagery and even use allegory. Music is expressive! I get that. But if you are going to employ a device … stick with it.

‘He’ is a hurricane, I am a tree. Fine. Wind bends trees. Got it. What is the mercy part? Mercy doesn’t bend trees. That line doesn’t make any sense.

Herein lies the problem: the thoughtless jumping into and out of poetic devices is distracting to anyone who is actually thinking about what they are singing. If your going to employ imagery – go with it. Stick with it. As worshipers we will give you plenty of permission to be creative. Just don’t be distracting.

3) Who are you singing to? The next line of the song then shifts voices/audiences.

When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

We were just singing about ‘Him’ and now you (singular) are singing to ‘You’. What happened there?  It is like this song loses its train of thought or switches into and out of storytelling mode impulsively.

Herein lies the problem: contemporary worship songs have become so emotive that what may be appropriate for the song writer’s personal/private experience may not be as suitable for public/corporate worship.

4) He Loves Us. The chorus then has another shift in voice and audience and now ‘we‘ are signing about ‘Him’. The music swells and settles into a powerful and constant sway. The audience comes together into full-throated unity. It is an amazing crescendo and it resonates deeply in our hearts as we remind each other of the deepest truth in the universe: God is love (I John 4:8) and that love is for the whole world (John 3:16).

Herein lies the problem: the chorus is beautiful and deep and meaningful and true. So my concern about the distracting and scattered nature of the song up to this point may lead someone to ask “You don’t like that song? I love that song! It means so much to me and I experienced God’s love when we sang it.”  And that is the problem! Because songs are so powerful and people’s experience in/of them is so profound and meaningful … we need to be more careful with the stuff we throw up on the powerpoint projector.

My concern is not with the sincere congregant who throws themselves whole-heartedly into a worship chorus and isn’t analyzing every detail of the progression and theology. God bless them!
My concern is with the leadership that chooses and orchestrates the worship gathering! We need to love, lead and protect people because they are vulnerable when they on their knees – with their eyes closed – and their hands raised to heaven. That is a vulnerable position and we are asking them to offer their whole hearts to God – we can’t be this sloppy and unquestioning in our song selection.

 

I could go on with my critique of this song. It gets weirder and more erratic. I don’t want to beat a dead horse though. 

Let me close with this: If you were to take the lyrics of a song and plug them into one of those ‘word bubble’ generators, if ‘He’ is the biggest word + ‘God’ never appears in the song = the song is making assumptions we cannot afford to make in the 21st century.

In a post-modern post-christendom context, people are coming in with both great needs and massive assumptions. We are missing the very opportunity that worship of the living God provides when we don’t challenge those assumptions (of both God’s identity as well as  our own identity) and meet those needs of forgiveness, acceptance and belonging.

It is time to ask again what the purpose of worship is and then select songs accordingly. Otherwise we are missing an opportunity to teach about God and introduce people to that God who loves them so very much.

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, concerns and corrections. 

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Modern Christianity’s Temptation (2/3)

In light of the massive shifts in culture, understanding and expectation that the last 300 years has seen, there seem to be three great temptations for the devout.

Last week we talked about the problems that Modernity brought to Christianity’s doorstep in the West. Science had moved into the driver’s seat and was none too kind to those who would not get on board.

The problem, of course, is that we are simply not left the option to go back to primitive Christianity. For Lent this year I read books about post-Nuclear theology and listened to lectures on the first twelve centuries of Church history. It has never been more apparent that the world has changed in drastic ways.

  • Christendom
  • The Scientific Age
  • Globalization

Are just 3 catalysts and results of this epic (and epoch) shift.

Tomorrow I will present what I see as the amazing opportunity. Today I want to comment on what seem to be the 3 biggest temptations for modern Christianity:

  1. to concede
  2. to attack
  3. to retreat.

 

Concede

Faith as a public matter has never been more challenging. The easiest response is to both personalize ones faith and then make it private. This is a two-step dance but either is dangerous on its own.

Personalizing faith is a natural response for an Enlightenment Individual. We major in ‘self’. We have cultivated the ability to think in ‘me’. This is a novel development in religion and some argue that it is against the very nature of religion! The purpose of religion is to bind us together in practice (re-ligio) or reconnect us as a belief-community.

The second step is to internalize ones personal faith. In liberal democracy, no one cares if you believe something – just keep it to yourself. Don’t put it on someone else. Your personal practice in there or over there is one thing … just don’t make too big of a deal about out here. Out here we have a civil expectation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If your religion helps as a means to those ends, fine. If not, it might become an issue of you infringe on someone else right. Go ahead and practice your ‘tradition’ on your own time but just keep it down when you’re out here in public.

The modern expression of Christianity has responded to this two-step dance in many little ways – my favorite of which is consumeristic-accessorization. The bumper sticker on my interal-combustion automobile and the fashionable yet ironic message T that imitates a popular ad campaign are just two examples. It allows me to allude to a Bible verse (I am not of the world after all) while participating in a capitalist system that goes unquestioned.

 

Attack

To counter the personal-and-internal compromise noted above, an aggressive and external coup has been attempted. The memory of Christendom has fueled a political response to take back power and ‘return to our roots’. The rise of the Religious Right (and Moral Majority) of the past four decades is perhaps the most high-profile example. It is, however, just the latest incarnation of this impulse.Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

The fond (and white-washed) memories of days gone by and yesteryear fuel an anger at what is seen as a disintegrating culture and a slouching toward Gomorrah. The resulting Culture Wars and political animosity have a fundamental problem however:

Ever since the Constantinian compromise in the 4th century is has been difficult (if not impossible) to get the Bible to say what one needs it to say in order to justify a claim to power.

A religion founded on the teaching of a marginalized prophet and incubated in persecuted minority communities does not lend itself to being in charge. An incredible amount of selective editing, creative hermeneutics and mental gymnastics are required to make it fit. At some point a voice like Yoder comes along and points out that ‘this is untenable’.

 

Retreat

The above two responses are both simpler and more obvious (and thus more popular) than our last response. The retreat is more subtle and sophisticated. I will return to Theology at the End of Modernity from the first post.

Those who seek to answer the questions raised by the work of Gordon Kaufman (primarily Sheila Greeve Davaney and Linell E. Cady) have deep concern about a school of thought that seeks to move the Christian tradition toward an “autonomous and protected location”.

A seductive temptation is found in an attempt to preserve former (historic) expressions of the faith behind linguistic fences (insulated language games) and communities that become isolated silos. These “are really retreats into forms of fideism or ‘protective strategies’ that seek ways of interpreting theological discourse so as to preserve its unique status.”

The Post-Liberal work of Lindbeck and the Radical Orthodoxy camp of Milbank and MacIntyre are in danger of this.[1]

Those who follow this line of reasoning:

“contend that theology is not properly about ascertaining indubitable truth claims about God or reality, nor about fathoming the depths of human subjectivity; rather, the task is to analyze and explicate the fundamental claims about reality and human life that have emerged within a specific tradition, so that believers might more fully appropriate and live out of their tradition’s vision of reality.”

It becomes a:

“self-enclosed historical community; its method is interpretive, not critical; and its goal is to aid in the internalization of central claim, not the critique or reconstruction of that which we have inherited.” p. 6

You can see the attraction of the retreat! By privileging “revelation” or the “given-ness” of the tradition, one is afforded the space to preserve and defend an inherited system which immune for outside critique and thus preserved in its ‘as is’ status.

This romantic preservation and reclamation mistakenly – and perhaps intentionally – defends and protects manifestations and consequences that we not only need to move on from but we to which we can not possible return to.

 

In part 3 we will conclude this series with a challenge to make the Christian faith “pluralistic, public, and critical”.

 

[1] “by emphasizing an ahistorical human subjectivity, (they seem) to find an autonomous sphere protected from the challenge of other forms of inquiry, then the cost of such independence was the removal of both theology and religion from the public sphere.” p.5

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Resurrection – whether physical, spiritual or poetic – Really Matters!

I awoke to a provocative text from my friend on the East coast yesterday morning. He had a 3 hour head start on me and I assume he was at an Easter sunrise service.

My friend knows that I now minister in a context where not everyone believes in physical resurrection, preferring a more ‘spiritual’ interpretation or even a poetic one.

He wanted to know how you preach hope without a physical resurrection. I informed him that it is was almost no different. For all the energy and effort we put into defending the Evidence That Demands a Verdict reading of the Easter story, the reality is that:

  1. You can say almost everything you used to say
  2. It has the same impact on how people live their lives either way

That was a sobering realization for me a couple of years ago.

Side Note: This is why I get into it with Tripp when he insists on THE resurrection and scoffs at my preference for Resurrection. [you can read about his disdain for my friend ‘Al’ here]

I thought it would be fun put my response here and compare notes with others who have been on both sides of this fence.

Here is what I said about preaching hope on Easter:Palouse2TreeSunsetFusion2_2

“In the same way that the disciples experienced the presence of Christ after Easter, we experience God’s presence with us.

Through the presence of God’s holy spirit we both re-member Christ and are empowered to obey Jesus’ teaching and as we do this we are the Body of Christ and the presence of God in the world.

We know that in Christ there is a life beyond death and the grave does not have the last word.”

It is strangely both encouraging and discouraging a the same time to realize.

  • Encouraging that living as Easter people, no matter your view of resurrection, means living out the life of God in the world and bringing/being good news to the world.
  • Discouraging that so much time and energy is expended on getting this right when in the end we all basically live the same way, serve with grace, and spend our time, talents and treasure in almost identical ways.

Living as Easter people is a privilege and joy! We proclaim good news in the Gospel of incarnation and emanuel.
We live into the new life and know that there is life beyond death! It is actually really good news that we have share – no matter if our view is physical, spiritual or poetic.

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What About Isaiah 53?

We talked about the dangers of a penal substitution theory of atonement yesterday. I want to thank everyone who shared, retweeted, emailed and commented. The sincerity and the level of interest were very encouraging to me – as was the level of pushback. It reminds me of exactly how much all of this matters to people.

The overwhelming theme of yesterday was “what about Isaiah 53?”. I would never have thought it would come up as much as it did. It apparently is a linchpin that holds a whole system of biblical interpretation, belief and practice together.

As we prepare to look at the role Isaiah 53 plays, I want to begin with some general confessions.

1) I was raised loving Isaiah 53. My first live rock show was Stryper for heaven’s sake. I get why this stuff is important and that is why I attempt to handle it so carefully (except for the random cheeky hyperbole to keep readers alert).

2) My point yesterday was the New Testament never refers to the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus. It is the one thing that we know didn’t happen on Good Friday. For people to continually, then, refer to a passage for the Hebrew Testament was supremely telling for me.

3) There are going to be three types of readers of this post.

  • The first person says “who cares what a poetic/prophetic piece. It was centuries earlier and not even about Jesus.”
  • A second kind of reader holds that the Old Testament (that is what they call it) is predictive. So even though the writer from BC would not have explicitly been writing about Jesus, God – who knows the future – slipped it in there through inspiration and double-layered the meaning of passages like Psalm 22.
  • A third kind of reader understands that the writers of the four gospel texts were well acquainted with passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 which would have shaped the way they told the Jesus story.

You can see this in the 7 Saying of the Cross. None of the 7 appear in all 4 gospels. We have assembled them. We have amalgamated them. We have harmonized them.

It is called a construct. The 7 Sayings of the Cross are a construction. The traditional order of the sayings is:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
  5. John 19:28: I thirst.
  6. John 19:29-30: It is finished.
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

This might be eye-opening to reader 2. When you are taught to read the Bible in a harmonized way, Jesus said 7 things from the cross. You may not know or even care that you have to turn to 4 different accounts to accumulate the 7 sayings. It may never dawned on you that they were telling four different kinds of stories within the bigger story.

In the same way many readers are making the mistake of mashing together The Day of Atonement’s “scapegoat” and the Passover’s lamb. This is causing great confusion. BUT when you are comfortable harmonizing Old and New Testament, the four Gospel accounts and Jewish holidays/imagery into one big thing … this is going to happen.

It would take too much to write for all 3 readers. Since #1 doesn’t care anyway and reader #3 is probably not building a theology around a poetic/prophetic passage from the Earlier Testament (that is what they would call it). I will focus on Reader 2!

 

What follows are the words of Hardin, Heim and Jones on Isaiah 53 – all texts are available in Kindle.

” This is not about an economy of exchange.  Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say God is angry or wrathful with sinners, nor does he ever say or imply that God’s wrath must be appeased before God can accept sinners back into the fold.  lamb

None of the logic of the sacrificial principle can be found in anything Jesus says regarding his death.  If Jesus death was not a sacrificial act, relating to the logic of giving and receiving then what was it?  First, it was a political act.  It was Pilate, as representative of Caesar, who gave the order of execution.  It was pagan Empire that actually carried out the crucifixion.  Although it is true that Jesus was ‘handed over’ to the Jewish leadership by one of his disciples, and it is also true that Jesus was ‘handed over’ to Pilate by these same religious authorities, it was the pagan sacrificial system of Empire that killed Jesus.

The Passion Narrative has a certain structure that is familiar to readers of ancient stories, the structure of all against one (5.2, 6.3).  As we noted earlier, virtually everyone with the exception of a few women, participated in the execution of Jesus.  No one is left out.  To put it bluntly, Jesus was lynched by an angry mob.

Like the victim of Psalm 22 or the servant of Isaiah 53, he was alone; no one came to his aid, no one stood up for him, no one cried out that what was being perpetrated was an injustice. Sometimes Christians look at the cross of Jesus and see a singular unique event.

The fact that Jesus so clearly ties his death into the deaths of other victims (like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53) ought to indicate that he does not see his death in sacrificial terms.  In fact he sees a clear connection between his death and all of the unjust deaths of his sacred history.  In Matthew 23:29-36 Jesus addresses his contemporaries with a warning: they will experience the cataclysm of social disintegration because they persist in using violence against individuals to solve their social crises.

  “I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers.  Some you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.  And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of the righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar.”

Jesus points out that the history of the Jewish people is a history bounded by murder: the very first murder of the Jewish ‘canon’ was that of Abel (Genesis 4:8) and the last murder, that of Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:20-21).  His death will be like that of every prophet sent by God to Israel.  The difference between Jesus’ death and that of the prophets, from Abel to Zechariah, was that their deaths took place in or by sacred altars; it was in the context of sacrifice, near a bloody altar that they die.  Jesus does not die in the Temple or near an altar.  His death is completely secularized; he dies on a hill “outside the city gate” (Hebrews 13:12).

This becomes an important clue that Jesus’ death was to be interpreted as other than the usual sacrificial practice of making an offering to appease the deity.    So, Jesus’ death is not to be interpreted in the logic of the sacrificial principle but as the subversion and end of it. (1)

Jesus’ death was God’s way of coming into the machinery of sacrifice and tossing in a wrench to stop it from working ever again.  The sacrificial principle is the dark side of religion of which Jesus’ death is the light.

Mark Heim in his book Saved from Sacrifice sums it up best:

  “The truth is that God and Jesus together submit themselves to human violence.  Both suffer its results.  Both reveal and overcome it.  God does not require the death of the Son anymore than Jesus requires the helpless bereavement of the Father.  Jesus’ suffering is not required as an offering to satisfy God anymore than one member of a team undertaking a very dangerous rescue mission ‘requires’ another dearly loved member to be in a place of peril or pain.  They are constantly and consistently on the same side.  By virtue of their love and communion with each other, each suffers what the other suffers. They are not playing out a war in the heart of God.” (2)

 

So how does this apply to PSA?  Tony Jones explains:

When Anselm wrote Cur Deus Homo, there was “penal” in the substitution. There was no penal code in his day, no forensic understanding of justice. In fact, Anselm’s theory is better understood as “satisfaction” than as “substitution.”

According to Anselm, we owe God a debt, and that debt is obedience. But because of our sin, we are incapable of paying that debt, we are incapable of obedience to God. Jesus Christ, being perfectly obedient to God, is able to pay that debt, and he did so on the cross. We are not thereby freed of our obligation to obey, but we are freed of the arrears that we owe.

Five centuries after Anselm, along came Calvin. With the mind of a lawyer and the government of Geneva in his sights, Calvin took Anselm’s satisfaction theory and turned it up a few notches. It’s not just that we owe God a debt due to our disobedience, it’s that divine justice demands that we be punished for our disobedience.

Basically our sin cannot be forgiven without punishment. Christ’s death satisfies that demand, and we are forgiven of our sins based on Christ’s death. (3)

________________

When you put all of this together, I hope that you can see:

  1. that Jesus’ death was unjust.
  2. that Jesus’ death was not transactional.
  3. that Jesus’ death can be read as satisfaction but not substitution.
  4. that PSA is a historical development (construct) and not THE Biblical truth about Jesus’ death.

I would love your feedback and look forward to your thoughtful responses – concerns – and questions.  I hope that this has been helpful.

You can listen to that interview with Hardin here.  The original post about blood and the cross [here] and the Concerns of the Cross [here].  Our nerdy conversation about the cross on TNT [here].

(1) Hardin, Michael. The Jesus Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity With Jesus $8.99

(2) Heim, Mark. Saved From Sacrifice: a theology of the cross  $15.12

(3) Jones, Tony. A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin  $2.99

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